Reading Uriah’s War was another history lesson for me as I was unaware that West Indian men volunteered to fight for the British Empire during First World War. According to the introduction, Andrea Levy’s grandfather had been at the Somme in France during the war, probably attached to a labor battalion “that needed just as much heroism, as fatalities were high”.
The story begins at an army camp in Seaford, where the narrator Uriah and his friend Walker are in a pub sipping on a beer. A white man comes to them asking why they – the Blacks – are fighting a war for only a shilling a day when the big guns get paid fifteen thousand pounds a year, especially when the King and his Royal family are German. Of course, the Englishman doesn’t get to continue his rant as he gets arrested for “making remarks likely to jeopardize recruiting to His Majesty’s forces.” And his bluster offends Uriah and Walker who are full of patriotism.
You see, the Empire was our protector, that is how we thought. England was great, sort of thing. And she was under threat.
But their enthusiasm soon fades away when the order comes that West Indian troops would serve as laborers in France. So much for wanting to show the gratitude of black men to the Empire by killing Germans, so much for wanting to show the British white folks what black men can do!
Now who wanted to come all that way to be in a labour battalion? Running back and forth with shells and what-and-what for the front line. No rifle, no combat, but just as likely to die. That would have been a humiliation.
Somehow the first battalion which Uriah and Walker serve joins the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. They are to fight the Turks. And they do fight them off showing such bravery even the officers have to rethink their stance “that black men would be no real help in this war.”
We fought those Turks so fierce that a big-big major remarked of us, ‘My God! Are they angels or are they fools? Don’t they see shells? Don’t they hear shells, don’t they know what shells are?’ So amazed was he to see us West Indians passing through hails of exploding shrapnel like we were strolling to church. Our cheerfulness and gallantry under heavy fire were heartily praised. And at the armistice we patted the backs of our imperial comrades – from Britain, New Zealand, Australia, India, Africa – and they patted ours.
However, these praises don’t add up to much. Uriah and Walker are in for a brutal shock when they get to the camp in Taranto, Italy where West Indian troops are treated as lesser human beings than the Whites. They are denied equal pay and other privileges and their dignity is stripped off by making them do all the demeaning work. Walker’s reaction to this discrimination lands him in jail and is followed by the cold death of Uriah.